A careless mistake made by a renowned architect is set in stone above the steps leading to the courthouse on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. The true administration of justice …, begins a quote lifted from a letter from George Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War, but Washington’s letter read the due administration of justice. When they discovered the mistake in the 2000s, the local papers wouldn’t let up on the architect, mocking him relentlessly 80 years after his death, ranting on as if his monumentalized typo really meant something about how justice was dispensed in New York City.
District Attorney Jack McCoy loved to tell this story to anyone who’d listen. Rafael Barba had heard it at least five times, and tonight, in Barba’s dimly lit office, he was telling it a sixth.
Barba had hoped to duck in at 8pm after the last night of his grandmother’s wake and read over the transcript of a hearing from a few weeks ago in order to highlight some evidence he needed for his opening argument at a trial scheduled to start the next Monday. The case had involved a pregnancy resulting from a rape, a 6-month-old whose biological father had filed for custody in family court, Buchanan refusing a plea of more than two years’ jail time, and at the back of Barba’s mind, or the front of it, or all over his mind, was that toddler who he’d held at arms length the other day so he wouldn’t get vomit or drool or whatever leaked out of babies on his suit, and that toddler’s mother, his friend — his colleague — the sergeant he worked with — his friend? — Olivia Benson.
He’d hoped to duck into the office, make sure everything was in order for this case that really had nothing to do with Olivia Benson, or her foster son, really, as much as it —
McCoy walked through the open office door and launched right into the story about the mistake engraved above the courthouse steps.
“But I’ve told you this story before, haven’t I, Rafael?” he asked, interrupting himself.
“Yes,” he said brusquely (but careful not to add “many, many times”).
“How’s your mother holding up?”
“As well as she can,” Barba said. He always kept his personal life close to his chest, taped there like a wire worn by an undercover police detective, but he had disclosed his grandmother’s death when he’d asked for a few days off. He usually only took vacation days in solo skiing or beach holidays, and he didn’t want to pique anyone’s curiosity.
Curiosity could lead to them finding out that he’d given a “loan” to a heroin-addicted witness to ensure she’d appear on the stand, that his guilt over her death had chewed away part of his soul, that he still deposited money into an account for her daughter to ensure that the girl and her grandmother had enough to eat and a place to live.
Curiosity could lead to the discovery of personal relationships that would result in political disaster.
So every once in a while, he laid a card or two on the table to prevent them from looking for the full deck he hid in his back pocket.
“Don’t come into work when you’re supposed to be taking vacation days. It’s a bad habit you don’t want to get into, before you wind up a sad, twice-divorced old man with a kid who resents you.”
That was a lot of cards on the table, especially for McCoy.
Barba offered him a weak smile.
“You remind me a lot of myself when I was younger,” McCoy said, sitting behind Barba’s desk while Barba flipped through the rest of the transcript near the window ledge. “Always going after the big cases, going after what infects society, never settling for less than five years even when Branch, or Lewin, or Schiff asked me to settle for less than five years.”
“Jack, do you think there’s any justice in settling for two years for a rapist who’s demanding custody of a 6-month-old solely to terrorize her mother?”
“No.” McCoy pushed the chair back from Barba’s desk and stood again. “You have time for a drink? There’s a bottle of unopened Glenlivet 21 Year on my desk.”
The taxpayers must have loved that the District Attorney had a $250 bottle of scotch sitting on his desk.
“A birthday gift,” McCoy clarified.
“A man after my own heart, but I need to get back to my mother before she realizes that I left the wake to go to the office.”
“You’re the only other ADA I know of who keeps a bottle of office scotch.”
“My bottle of “office scotch” lasts me 6 months to a year.” How about yours? he wanted to add, but, the discovery of office scotch at Centre Street was another revelation that could lead to political ruin.
“Where’s the funeral?” McCoy asked.
“St. Vincent’s cemetery, Westchester.” He flashed another weak smile, and quickly swallowed hard when he felt a lump in his throat, a too-familiar tingle in his chest, a pain behind his eyes. “Mostly family friends.”
“How did —“ McCoy began, but Barba interrupted him with “There’s nowhere left to bury anyone in the five boroughs anymore,” not wanting to be dragged into whatever conversation the word family might broach.
I should go see Olivia.
He let out a reflexive hm, unsure of what had brought that thought on.
McCoy patted Barba’s arm. “Take good care, Rafael. Send your mother my love.”
On his way out, Barba’s phone chimed. A message from Lucia: You snuck out to go to work?
I’m on my way back
Not home yet. Having coffee with Tia Monica, she wrote, referring to an old family friend. Go out. Call Eddie. Call that sergeant you’ve got a thing for. Abuelita wouldn’t want you sitting in my apartment like a sad cuarentón.
How did she learn to compose text messages so fast? he wondered, pulling up the lapels of his long tan coat as he walked down the courthouse steps, his phone still in his hand, glowing in front of him.
Like a sad cuarentón. His grandmother called him el juez, and Lucia would often pull him aside and whisper something about how she worried that abuelita was getting a bit senile, as if senility rather than pride or hopefulness or faith in the trajectory of his career was the only reason for her to call him el juez.
He’d never be a judge.
He stopped for a second to look up at the courthouse, at the mistake rendered in stone in the frieze above the steps.
He’d never be a judge because he’d essentially bribed a witness to appear in court.
He’d never be a judge because of the Abreu family.
He’d never be a judge because of Alex Muñoz.
Do you need a squabbling partner tonight? Barba cringed immediately after he hit the send button on his ill-considered text message to Benson.
Sounds like you do. Come over.
He hadn’t spoken to her since the afternoon his grandmother died, just a quick text message on his way to help Lucia arrange the funeral. She’d texted him back a heart. He’d laughed at her sweet, simple gesture of sympathy.
By 9:30, he was in her lobby. He knew not to ring the bell because of the (hopefully) sleeping toddler, so he texted her again to buzz him up.
Moments after she closed the door behind them, she wrapped her arms around him, over his coat, and squeezed tightly.
“How are you doing?”
“I’m all right. I’m sorry I’m intruding.”
“Of course not. We’re friends. You needed a friend.”
She was wearing pajama pants and a gray T-shirt and maybe a bra, maybe — probably? — but he tried not to pay attention. She helped him off with his coat, which she set on the counter just outside the kitchen. He shrugged off his suit jacket and loosened his violet-checkered tie, leaving both with the coat on the counter.
“I didn’t think I’d hear from you again until you were back at work,” Benson said.
He watched her correct her facial expression from a smile into a look of deep concern.
“I was worried about the — hypothetical — situation with Noah,” he lied, although that wasn’t entirely a lie, since Noah’s hypothetical paternity evidenced by hypothetically solid DNA did worry him.
He worried about her.
He worried for her. He didn’t want to see her frightened, he didn’t want to see her sad.
That was something.
That was the sort of something he hadn’t felt in years.
That sort of something could lead to hundreds of cases being re-examined.
Your brain talks too much, Abuelita would have said.
Benson was holding him again. “You needed a friend,” she repeated. “I get it. It’s okay.”
He would never be el juez.
As the thought re-entered his mind, tears sprung to his eyes, and without thinking (abuelita would be proud) pressed his forehead into her shoulder. He felt a hand in his hair and a kiss near his hairline.
“Come on, sit down,” she said, leading him to the couch, where she had a newsmagazine program playing on low volume on the television. “Can I get you a drink?”
He shook his head, afraid of how choked up he’d sound if he spoke.
El juez. His grandmother was the only person who believed in that ambition he kept buried somewhere in his coat pocket, and now the only person who believed was gone. He tried not to think about it.
Abuelita didn’t know what he’d done for the Abreus. (No one except for the dead woman’s mother and daughter knew.) She knew very little about the Alex Muñoz scandal because Lucia said it’d kill her if she knew that her only grandson had ended Muñoz’s promising political career, screwing over the community he’d grown up in, over a couple of inconsequential extramarital affairs. Lucia was right — even though the main concern was corruption, but still, Lucia was right in that his doing his job had betrayed everyone who put their hopes in Alex Muñoz — and he never wanted to break his grandmother’s heart.
On the couch now, his head was on Benson’s shoulder again, her hand playing with his hair.
“Rafael,” she said, and he heard tears in her voice too. “You’re a good man.”
He felt her laugh. She ran her free hand up and down his arm.
Really not thinking now, he lifted his head, dipped it to the side, and kissed her lips.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve seen a non-sarcastic smile on your face,” she said.
“I’m sorry about the kiss. It was inappropriate. We work —“
“Don’t worry about that now,” she said, and he wondered if she was telling herself the same thing. She took his hand and drew it closer to her, a gesture of comfort.
He wished it was more than that.
They both knew it couldn’t reasonably be more than that.
IAB and the DA’s office would re-examine all the cases they’d worked on together. All the mistakes he’d made would be unearthed. They’d dig back into Brooklyn. They’d find Ashtonja Abreu. He’d be disbarred.
He’d never be a judge.
“Rafael,” she repeated. “Would you let me call you Rafi?”
He had at least two unintended reactions to hearing that name on her lips, the more visible of which was a shudder.
“Okay, we’ll stick with Rafael.”
“Some of my friends call me Raf or Rafa, if you really have that much anxiety about saying Rafael.”
“Rafa. I like that.”
“Good. You can use it when you yell at me for fucking up the case that’s on my desk now.”
“Shh.” Impulsively, she kissed him, a wide, open-mouthed kiss that was so, so much better than the best bottle of 21-year-old office scotch.
He moved his lips to her neck, then her collarbone, then back up to her jawline. “You can call me Rafa if you’d like, but I’ll bet I can get you to say Rafael loud and slow.”
“I like that idea,” she said breathlessly as he moved his kisses lower again, towards her breasts (yes, definitely a bra under there), “I love that idea, but —“
He looked up at her. Her eyes were closed. “But,” she continued, “we have both had terrible weeks, and that’s —“
“Clouding our ability to make reasonable decisions that could ruin our equally promising careers,” he said sharply.
Now they were both sitting up straight, hands in their laps, which would have been comical if Benson wasn’t so worried about Noah and Barba wasn’t in mourning.
Barba stood and smoothed out his pant legs, leading to the kitchen counter to retrieve his suit jacket, tie, and coat. Near the door, Benson hugged him again.
“Liv, I —“
“I know,” she said.
He kissed her cheek. “Thank you. I needed a —“
“A cry, but also a friend.”
“Can I still call you Rafa?”
“Yes, of course.”
“We’ll save Rafael” — she whispered the name into his ear, long and luxuriously slow — “for when you leave the DAs office.”
“You’re getting me fired?”
“When you leave the DAs office, when you’re appointed to the bench.”
“Liv.” He drew her into another hug. “Olivia.” Warm tears started running down his face; he couldn’t control them, even as he gritted his teeth and tried to smile.
“What did I say?”
“My grandmother called me el juez. She was a bit senile, confused, especially at night. You know how it is.”
With that, he led her to believe he was crying because “when you’re appointed to the bench” had reminded him of his grief over his grandmother.
He was crying because she’d promised to save her sweet, languorous “Rafael”s for something that would never happen.
“You and I are done talking,” he told her a year later, and in that moment, he wanted it to be true, for them to be done talking, to never speak to each other again. She’d defended Ed Tucker of IAB, admitted they were sleeping together. The goddamn IAB, there was no greater conflict-of-fucking-interest than that. What was she thinking, even setting aside or ignoring their own brief moment of crossing the line, what was she thinking?
He kept his lips pursed together, teeth gritted behind them, until she left. When he heard her leave the outside office, he opened his mouth, took a deep breath, and shuddered with anger.
He wanted to pick up a coffee mug and throw it across the office, let it shatter against the wall, but if Carmen, or the maintenance workers, or Jack McCoy saw the shards of ceramic scattered on the rug, they’d know the extent to which Olivia Benson had broken his heart.